It's something of a conceit to talk about themes for an entire season of a show but for Season Four of HBO's Boardwalk Empire, trust seemed to come up over and over again. No one could trust anyone. And unlike Season Three when many of the series most prominent characters, especially those that are based on actual historical people, escaped consequence for some of their dastardly deeds, this season saw both the good and bad suffer. Misplaced trust cost some characters quite dearly, including but not limited to fan favorite and black gangster/businessman Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams), the stone cold war veteran killer with a heart of gold Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), Chicago syndicate Boss Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) and incestuous murderous prostitute drug addict Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol).
It was a sign of the show's insights into human nature that in Season Four it managed to make Gillian Darmody a somewhat sympathetic character. This is after all someone who seduced her own son, manipulated him into a criminal war he could not win, murdered someone else in order to collect on her son's pensions and insurance, was needlessly cruel and humiliating to Richard, pimped young girls, and despite being wholly unfit and whacked out on smack was trying to maintain custody of her grandson, who she no doubt would have "initiated" into manhood once she thought him old enough. That is all part of who Gillian is. She is not a morally clean person. But in case we forgot the show reminded us subtly and directly that Gillian Darmody is a sum of her mostly bad past experiences. Years ago the show's lead protagonist Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a then sheriff, acting on orders from a since deceased political patron and boss, picked the barely post pubescent Gillian out of a crowd and delivered her to that man who shortly after raped her, producing a son. This is not something which Nucky has ever seemed to feel any noticeable regret for having done. Perhaps distaste, but certainly not guilt. It's not discussed as much because Nucky is the protagonist but he's not a good guy in any real way.
So in a very real way Gillian never had a family or protector. This explains why she held so tightly, too tightly on to her son Jimmy, who was of course later murdered by Nucky. It also explains, why having been too early introduced to the idea that men and authority figures could not be trusted and that her only value lay between her legs Gillian was extremely vulnerable to the idea that a man of power could be trusted and valued her for more than the obvious. She hid this well but ultimately it was her downfall. You could if you chose almost feel sorry for her. She fell in love with a businessman (Ron Livingston) who she thought would be her salvation. He helped her kick heroin and seemed to be in love with her for more than her sexual skills. However in a moment when she thought she was supporting him emotionally, she confessed to her murder of a young man. And that's when he revealed he was a Pinkerton detective. This was a pretty powerful scene.
At the conclusion of Season 3, through a series of sharp moves, including some assistance from his allies Chalky White and Eli Thompson (Shea Wigham), his brother, and a fortuitous alliance with the Italian dominated element of Chicago organized crime, Nucky was able to defeat New York backed incursions into his Atlantic City domains. This cost him his marriage to Margaret Thompson (Kelly MacDonald) but Nucky wasn't too worried about it. Since I find Margaret neither attractive nor interesting I was very happy that this season saw her role quite limited. Nucky reduced his open political role and decided to move more in the shadows, relying on Chalky and Eli to handle things more.
For want of a horse a kingdom was lost. This season, many of the problems that plague Nucky and cost Chalky and Eli dearly are brought about through two seemingly innocuous events. Chalky's right hand man Dunn Purnsley (Erik Harvey) is seduced by a married white woman. Dunn is game for what was referred to as "jelly" (you'll see that reference in a lot of blues or jazz songs from the twenties and the thirties) but is somewhat taken aback to find that he is just a cog in a racist sex game being played between the woman and her husband, who intends to watch while pleasuring himself (and hurling racial insults) as his wife and Dunn copulate. Dunn can't abide by this and murders the man. The woman flees but is picked up by black NY gangster Dr. Narcisse (Jeffery Wright), an interpretation of real life hoodlum Casper Holstein. Dr. Narcisse was also in business with the murdered man. He threatened both Chalky and Nucky with exposure unless he's given a piece of Chalky's club. Another aside, it's often been the case that real life nationalist, revolutionary or reform organizations across the world are infiltrated or captured by gangsters, who mouth support for the "cause" even as they rip off and kill their own people. Narcisse is no different. A Marcus Garvey acolyte, he speaks of uplifting black people throughout the diaspora. He has disdain for black people he sees as uncultured, particularly if they are darker skinned. That doesn't stop him from selling alcohol or drugs to them though, via appropriate cut-outs. He and Chalky hate each other almost immediately. The series finale was suitably tragic in that regard.
Eli's college student son Will, in order to forestall a romantic rival and bully, poisoned the other student's drink. Unfortunately the bully died and Will called his uncle Nucky to fix the situation which Nucky did by framing Will's roommate. This however got to the attention of the nascent FBI, which in the person of one agent Knox forced Eli to start informing on his brother's organization.
Meanwhile in Chicago, Torrio is not super happy about his underling Al Capone's (Stephen Graham) rising popularity/infamy and increasing number of independent actions. We see this through the eyes of former Prohibition Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) who strangely enough seems to work for both the Torrio-Capone group and the North Side O'Bannion group. When O'Bannion is murdered by Capone hired hitters, payback comes in an extended attack on the Torrio-Capone headquarters, right after Torrio has left the building. Then Torrio himself is shot multiple times outside of his home. He survives and turns everything over to Capone. IRL the murder attempt on Torrio was blamed on the North Siders but some people, Lucky Luciano among them, thought that Capone was behind it. The show broadly hints that Torrio orchestrated the attack on Capone and that Capone retaliated. We'll never know.
Chalky, who murdered his treacherous employee Dunn, when Dunn switched sides to Narcisse, made an attempt on Narcisse's life which failed. This was as much personal as business as Chalky was sleeping with Narcisse's girlfriend/protege. This led to Chalky's fleeing town with said girlfriend though he needed to be there for his daughter's (unknown to him cancelled) wedding. Narcisse took over Chalky's interests and even made inroads into Nucky's political power, convincing the Nucky backed mayor to order Chalky's murder by policemen, something which also failed. Obviously Chalky thought that Nucky okayed this. Fleeing to a mentor's (Louis Gossett Jr's.) home, Chalky was reminded to never ever trust any white person. As this chiding came from a man who was either a former slave or born immediately after slavery it had a very sobering impact on Chalky. Agent Knox has convinced Eli to get Nucky to implicate himself in a meeting with bosses from New York, Chicago and Florida. Unfortunately for Knox and Eli, Nucky has seen through the clumsy attempt at incrimination and refuses to show up. As this is the second time that Eli has betrayed him he briefly considers killing his brother or so we are led to believe, but declines. However the trust is broken for good. But Eli says he was forced to do what he did for his family. When Nucky says that Eli should have come to him, Eli points out that Will is not Nucky's son and that Eli has a family. Nucky doesn't. Eli deeply resents Nucky's interference, well meaning or not, in his family affairs. Returning home, Eli finds a fuming Agent Knox, who intends to arrest him and his son. A battle royale ensues in which Eli removes the federal agent from the planet.
Earlier in the season we saw Richard try to both return home and make a living as a hired assassin. He couldn't do either. The numerous murders he's done, the killing he's seen in the war, his horrific wound and general post traumatic stress made it difficult to relate to his sister. And believe it or not, Richard doesn't like killing. He's lost the stones for it, perhaps in part because he's regained his humanity via his fiancee and later wife Julia (Wrenn Schmidt) and their son, Gillian's grandson. Julia loves Richard, despite his fears, his verbal tics, and his ruined face. Nevertheless at presumably Nucky's and Chalky's urging Richard takes one last job...to shoot Narcisse in the head. They trust his deadly skills. As a sniper who has literally lost count of the men he's put down, this should be an easy job for Richard. Would that it were. Narcisse has kidnapped Chalky's daughter in order to demand the whereabouts of his girlfriend. A shaky hand on Richard's part and a last second movement by Chalky's daughter lead to tragedy. And Richard does not get back to see Julia. Quietly powerful stuff. I was REALLY impressed with both Williams and Huston this season. Buscemi had somewhat less to do as he's mostly reactive, not proactive this year. This finale is something you'll think about for a while. The decisions we make about what we do and who we trust have repercussions that can last for years. Chalky's wife never wanted her children to visit their father's club.